My Daughter, My Son

I’ve done quite a bit of writing and speaking, although much hasn’t been posted to the blog recently.  Check out my essay, published today on The Seventy Four (the74million.org).  family photo 1 - b+w

My Daughter, My Son: How School Bullies and State Laws Changed the Way I Saw My Transgender Child

Please read and share – and let me know what you think in the comments below!

To read more of our family’s story, you can purchase the book, Allies & Angels: A Memoir of Our Family’s Transition on Amazon, on our website, or through most other online retailers.

Thank you to The Seventy Four for sharing our story and for this important series about transgender students and the policies and practices of K-12 schools across the country.

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Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

I recently returned from my fourth Philadelphia Trans Health Conference. This annual conference draws between 3,000 – 4,000 transgender individuals, their families and service providers.

The first three times I attended the conference, I immersed myself in workshops for parents of trans youth and surrounded myself with a community of other parents and families on the same journey. Together we listened and learned from doctors, adolescent psychologists, advocacy and support organizations, and other seasoned parents.

But this conference was different. Although I did reconnect with many of the families who have become such an important part of our journey, this year I made dozens of new friends with older trans men and women.

I had a vending table where I sold our book, Allies & Angels: A Memoir of Our Family’s Transition. My husband and I sponsored The Transcending Gender Project, making it possible for the project to travel to Philly and we shared my table at the conference. (Watch for more about this great project in a future blog post!)

Our table was next to the Fantasia Fair table. Fantasia Fair is the world’s longest running trans event. (This year, October 19 – 26, will be the 40th consecutive year that the Fair has taken place in Provincetown, MA.)

I enjoyed fascinating conversations with the Fantasia Fair representatives. In addition, my prime piece of real estate allowed me to meet and speak with hundreds of conference attendees who visited the Fantasia Fair and Transcending Gender Project displays.

I am humbled, blessed, and grateful for all of those conversations. Over and over again I heard comments such as:

“I envy your son and all of the young people here at the conference. When I was your son’s age I thought I was the only one. I never heard the word “transgender.” There wasn’t the information and resources that there are today. There was no Internet and no way for me to connect with others and know I wasn’t alone.”

“I am amazed by the number of young people and families here supporting their trans children.”

“I wish I had my parents’ support. I didn’t transition until I was 40, 50, 60…”

“Your son is so lucky. Even today, I still have to live two lives because my career or family or [fill in the blank] does not allow me to fully transition at this time.”

I want to thank each of you from the bottom of my heart. I want you to know that because of you, young people like my son are able to know who they are and live the lives they deserve to live. And because of you, parents like me and my husband are able to know how important it is to support our children … and how to best go about doing that.

You are a part of history. You are an essential stone on our path from fear to acceptance to celebration. It is because of your courage and strength and willingness to share your stories and be who you are that children like my son are able to be who they are and experience life as their true selves from a much earlier age.

We are standing on the shoulders of giants. I dedicate this blog post to all of you. My conversations and new friendships in Philly reminded me of the important role you each played in my family’s personal journey … and in the trans movement as a whole.

We needed to learn
As parents, my husband and I did not immediately jump on board with the idea of supporting our son’s transition at the age of fifteen. We needed to first learn, understand and accept three things:

  1. what it means to be transgender,
  2. whether a child can know their gender identity, and
  3. whether our child was transgender and needed to transition for a happy, healthy life. (After all, not every gender non-conforming child needs to transition.)

Each of you, through the sharing of your experiences and deeply personal stories, helped build the knowledge base that parents like me have learned from.

My husband and I immersed ourselves in research and consulted doctors and experienced specialists. Allowing our child to live safely as a male in our home throughout this process was also a huge step toward discovering and affirming his gender for ourselves.

Our research and professional consultations gave us the answers and confidence we needed to know what we had ultimately come to accept—that our son was transgender.

But while my husband and I had the medical and scientific answers we needed to accept our child’s identity, it was the experiences shared by courageous trans men and women that gave us emotional insight into the importance of supporting his transition at such an early age.

You demystified what it means to be transgender and helped us understand your feelings and experiences. We could feel your pain—not just the pain of living as a gender you don’t identify with, but the pain from years of trying to deny it, trying to be somebody you aren’t, and trying not to hurt the people you love. Your bravery in telling such personal stories is commendable.

I’m grateful for your courage because your words helped me and so many others to better understand what our children are feeling. You also helped me recognize my role as a parent in either perpetuating or alleviating my son’s pain.

By sharing your pain you helped us learn a better way
We are in a time of increasing acceptance of transgender people, but it wasn’t always that way. So many trans people missed out on a significant portion of their lives as a man or a woman because family and social norms didn’t provide for transition during childhood. It was devastating when I learned that many transgender children do not survive to be adults.

We met so many people who transitioned in their thirties, forties, or fifties … who didn’t get to experience childhood as their identified gender. It became apparent that our son still had some of his childhood left. At age fifteen, he had two more years in high school; it was not too late to create childhood memories that he could look back on favorably. We had the power to help our son experience his remaining years of high school as a male.

By honestly sharing your painful experiences, you filled us with an incredible sense of urgency. My husband and I became committed to supporting our son’s transition. We didn’t want him to miss another day of living his life, comfortable in his own skin.

You helped make clear that we had a role to play in our son’s time-sensitive transition. Initially, our approach was that of typical parents: cautious. “Alright, let’s wait and see. If after you’re eighteen you want hormones or surgery … if you’re sure you want to do this, well, then we‘ll talk about it.”

But to help our son experience part of his childhood as a boy, we realized the initial cautious approach wasn’t going to work. Through our research and consultations with professionals, we learned waiting until eighteen wasn’t necessary. At this point we knew, without any doubt, that our child was a boy. Why put this arbitrary line in the sand that he can’t start living and being who he really is until he is eighteen? Why deny him three years or more of being comfortable in his own skin? Why deny him the ability to create memories that he can look back on and feel good about?

You contributed significantly to this important understanding—that there was still a chance for our son to experience the latter part of his childhood as a boy.

You explained so well about the loss you experienced, as a transgender person, never having the childhood of your affirmed gender. Thanks to you, our son obtained his driver’s license with the photo of a smiling young man and an “M” for male, he attended the prom handsomely dressed in a suit, and he graduated wearing a cap and gown the same color as the other boys. These, and other memories, have been collected over the past four years.

Forever grateful
I am forever grateful. Your brave and unselfish actions, sharing your experiences and feelings, have contributed to my awareness as a parent—helping me more quickly provide what my child needs.

I don’t know how long it would have taken me to come to these realizations on my own. As well-intentioned as I am and as much as I love my child, as much as I read every book I could get my hands on, researched every website I could find and talked to every doctor and professional I could; without meeting others who were willing to be vulnerable and expose themselves—knowing that many are going to be critical and judgmental and mean—it could have taken me years. It’s because of your stories, honesty, and courage that I got to this place of acceptance and urgency as soon as I did.

Every day my respect grows ever stronger for those who can be so open about such personal topics, because it is frightening, vulnerable, and difficult. It’s like pinning your heart on a bull’s eye where people can take aim and shoot. You don’t know how your story is going to be received—with empathy or with arrows. It can hurt, and yet, they do it anyway.

To any parents who are withholding their support, are in denial of their child’s transgender identity, or who have drawn an arbitrary line in the sand and say, “When you are of legal age to make these decisions for yourself, then I can’t stop you.”—I ask you to consider this: Suppressing and rejecting a transgender child robs them of their childhood and adds tremendously to the burdens of transition later in life.

I urge you to listen to and learn from not only your child, but from the brave trans men and women who came before them. I developed compassion, empathy and understanding that I’m embarrassed I didn’t have from the beginning. I know that you can too.

I am grateful for the long life my son has before him, living as the young man I now know he has always been. I am grateful for how I, and my entire family, have been changed by this experience. And I am most grateful to be standing on the shoulders of giants.

Vulnerability Creates Change

I just returned home after an inspiring week in Houston. Four days at the Creating Change Conference pumped me up for a two-day speaking engagement at BP.

Over 4,000 people attended Creating Change, the National Conference on LGBT Equality. This was my first Creating Change conference and I was blown away by the people I met, lessons I learned, and sense of community I felt. In fact, my only disappointment is that I’m returning home from the conference with the autographed copy of our book that I hoped to give Laverne Cox. I was a fan of Laverne’s long before the conference, but after her inspiring keynote speech the word “fan” does not capture the love, respect and appreciation I feel for this powerful woman.

I remember how I felt years ago, when I was coming to terms with the fact that my son is transgender. My love and support for him never wavered, but I struggled to envision what his life, his future, would look like. Who would love him the way he deserves to be loved? Would others see the heart, soul, and promise inside of him? All of the gifts and qualities that make him so special are still inside of him, but would others be open to seeing those qualities?

I am grateful to Laverne for being a “possibility model” … for using her powerful voice to create change and for showing me what the future can look like. If you have not seen her inspirational speech, I highly recommend it.

And Laverne … I look forward to the day we finally meet so I can hug you, thank you, and give you this book!

Laverne Cox at Creating Change 2014

My final conference workshop on Sunday was called, “The Key to Your Story is Vulnerability.” What a perfect transition!

I spent Monday and Tuesday at BP sharing my family’s story with their employees. The presentation in Houston was live-streamed to the company’s remote U.S. and international locations.

I often start my presentations with a Brené Brown quote – acknowledging the vulnerability I feel at the onset of sharing our family’s story and explaining my belief that through this vulnerability we experience connection.

“Staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we want to experience connection”

~ Brené Brown

My hope always is to connect with the audience on some level, whether it be as a mother, a sister, a friend, or an engineer. Through that connection others can experience our journey and hopefully understand how and why we would support our child’s transition from female to male at the age of 15.

It was especially fitting to kick off with a Brené Brown quote in her hometown of Houston. My audience knew and admired her. Thankfully the vulnerability quickly dissolved into connection. At both sessions there were audience members in tears. The questions, conversations, and hugs that followed were priceless. Tears and hugs are not something I would expect in a corporate setting, but the connection made it comfortable.

One woman raised her hand and said, “Brené Brown would have been proud of you if she had seen your presentation today. Your vulnerability is beautiful and your message and story are so important.” As she thanked me, she burst into tears.

One of my favorite comments came from a gentleman who said, “Throughout your presentation I was waiting to see a photo of your son. Now, at the end of your session, I am so glad you did NOT show us a photo because what I’ve learned from you is that your son, and all transgender people, are beautiful souls—people with hearts, loves, and lives just like me. I don’t need to see what he looks like. It doesn’t matter what the outside package looks like. We are all souls and we all matter. Thank you for sharing your story and reminding me of this.”

I can’t say enough about the positive experience I had at BP. This company deserves to be celebrated for inviting me in to share my story, and for creating an environment where employees can bring their whole selves to work.

By embracing our vulnerability and connecting with others, we can all create change!

Harry Potter Wasn’t the Only One Who Lived in a Closet

Several months ago I boldly proclaimed let the blogging begin as we came out of the closet about being proud parents of a transgender youth AND shared our big dream of using this life experience to raise awareness, increase compassion and create a world full of allies.

Since then, hundreds of you have reached out and signed on to support us … and we’re just getting started! We’ve heard from people all over the country, and last week the contacts started coming from outside the U.S. I get goose bumps thinking of so many huge-hearted people coming together with the common vision and belief that we all matter … and we can all make a difference. I’m excited about the things to come and grateful to already have so many along for the ride.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of National Coming Out Day. This year’s theme is “Coming Out Still Matters.”

As parents of a transgender youth we have experienced coming out “in many ways on many days” and from several perspectives. In celebration of this important day, I am kicking off a series of blog posts which touch on some of these vastly different coming out experiences.

For 15 years we thought our son was our daughter. He went through a process of self-discovery and understanding, not distinguishing right away between his sexual orientation and gender identity. Our son first came out as a lesbian before understanding and coming out as transgender. This eventually led to me and my husband, Vince, coming out as parents and as allies.

Yes, parents come out too. And so do allies.

Our son first came out to us in the summer before tenth grade. Soon afterward, despite years of relentless teasing, bullying and torment at the hands of fellow students because he didn’t “dress like a girl” or “act like a girl” or fit in with their expectations, he bravely came out to his teacher and classmates. In a memoir written for a tenth grade English assignment, our son shared his personal coming out experience at home.

At the time he was presenting as a girl and did not yet understand that he was actually a boy inside a female body. So the essay that follows is what appears to be a young girl, struggling with how to tell her parents that she is a lesbian. Of course we now all know our son is a young man, not a young girl. Reading the essay today, I see so many signs that we never picked up on and references to his gender expression and preferences, which, at the time, we interpreted as signs that he was a lesbian.

We learn and we grow. By sharing, perhaps others will too.

The essay that follows are his words and the experience through his eyes, coming out to his parents.

Harry Potter Wasn’t the Only One
Who Lived in a Closet

I’m gay, although it wouldn’t be a total shocker to anyone who found out. I mean, I wore clothes from the boy’s section and my older brother’s hand-me-downs since the time I started choosing what I could wear. Any clothes I received as a present from family members I’d accept graciously like my parents taught me to, but later return. They would usually get replaced with an oversized T-shirt or some pants that would be at least two sizes too big. I did nothing with my hair, just hopped out of the shower, brushed it and headed to school. I never wore makeup, I still don’t now. So pretty much the only thing I did for my “appearance” was shove a couple dryer sheets in my pockets so I’d at least smell nice. And instead of playing with Barbie, I was playing Pokemon or with Legos. At some point in my childhood I truly wondered if I was a boy.

I actually thought my parents already knew I was gay. Fifteen and never had a boyfriend? Not very likely for a straight girl in this generation. I guess I was just a little bit paranoid, but with good reason. My parents did have a past of going through the history on my computer. If they went through the history before I came out to them, they would most likely find:

• YouTube: How to Come Out To Your Parents
• eHow: How to Come Out of the Closet
• YouTube: My Coming Out Story
• YouTube: Tips on Coming Out

I think you probably get the gist of what I’m trying to say. My computer history was full of me preparing myself to come out to them. I had been trapped in the closet way too long.

Like I said, I thought they already knew, and that they just didn’t want to ask. That’s totally understandable, not wanting to ask someone if they’re gay. Because, if they were wrong it could kill a teenager’s self-esteem. As it turned out, they actually hadn’t gone through my computer. They could just sort of tell. As most people know, I am a horrible liar, and they could always tell when I lied. When they would ask if I had a boyfriend, I’d reply with “No” in that “Please stop asking that” tone every time. They knew I wasn’t lying to them. I am one of those teenagers who actually doesn’t lie to their parents.

So how the real beginning of this story started was one day this summer. The whole house was candle lit, making a strange mix of all sorts of different smells, because the power had just gone out. There was a crazy storm outside, obviously the cause of the power outage. The wind was so rough outside, all the chairs were knocked down, and even the big umbrella on our table blew off. That umbrella was held down with at least fifteen pounds of metal, plus the table itself. Everything was dead. Cell phone, iPod, laptop, video games, and everything else battery operated. I was practically forced by nature to sit and talk to my parents. Jokingly, my mom said, “So, it’s time for you to tell us your deepest, darkest secrets.” She didn’t know she was actually about to find one out.

I didn’t have the courage to straight up say, “Mom, Dad, I’m a lesbian.” I don’t know why, I was convinced they already knew. So I went with the only other idea I could think of. “Let’s play twenty questions and see if you can figure it out.” Their first question was obvious, “Are you pregnant?” Besides that being what any teenager’s parent would ask first, this was recently after my brother told my parents that his girlfriend was pregnant. The second question was equally obvious. “Are you doing drugs?” My brother is a recovering drug addict, and they knew we were both so alike that they had to check. After many more totally ridiculous questions I responded with a ‘no’ and rolled my eyes every time.

Finally they started getting closer. “Is it about a boy you like?” After I said no once again so blatantly, they seemed like they were starting to get what I wanted to tell them. I could see, even in the candlelight, their eyes told me that the next question was something that would not get the same response. “Is it about a girl you like?” I took a long pause. I felt like I had to say something, anything, but my mouth wouldn’t let me speak. It was like walking out of the dentist’s after getting a tooth pulled, when your entire face is numb from the Novocain. One of my parents decided to put an end to my long, awkward silence and asked, “Honey, do you like girls?” This time I opened my mouth to speak, but then knowing that was the point of this whole conversation, I shut it and just nodded. That was it. I was out.

My dad was raised Roman Catholic, my mom also raised in a Catholic home. I knew that they were no longer religious, only spiritual, but that didn’t make those few seconds between when I nodded and when they spoke to me any less terrifying. Just a few short seconds of waiting felt like hours. What I had just done was going to change my life forever, and I didn’t know whether that change would be good or bad. A whole lot of thoughts ran through my head, the majority of them not pleasant. I sort of came back to Earth once my mom started talking. She was pretty much going off on a speech on how there was “nothing wrong with that,” and that “it’s okay that I liked girls.” I did spend the last several years trying to figure that out, she didn’t need to tell me, but it did comfort me a bit. My dad could see on my face that I had already realized that, and told her she could stop. He said that they would both love me, no matter what, and that I didn’t have to worry about being judged by them. Hearing those words felt like it lifted a stack of bricks off my chest. And suddenly, the power outage and the smell of mixed candles didn’t seem quite as bad.

Do you have a coming out story that you want to share? Feel free to post in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you! To change hearts and minds, we need to keep sharing our stories until every single person feels comfortable being who they are. Coming out still matters. Our stories matter. We all matter. You can read more about the power of the personal story here.

2013 Rainbow Award Honorable Mention

News & Notes: Guess what? Our book, Allies & Angels, recently received Honorable Mention in the 2013 Rainbow Awards! We’re so excited and honored! Want to learn more about our book, check out the Free eBook Campaign, or read a sample chapter? Visit our book’s website: alliesandangels.com